Infinity and Beyond

James Webb was born in the county that neighbored the one where I was born and grew up. The local high school was named for him, and I had friends who went to school there. But until the James Webb Space Telescope launched last Christmas, I didn’t know anything about James Webb. I now know, that in addition to having a telescope named after him, he was the administrator of NASA during the Apollo program. You may be wondering what my point is, why this matters to us and what it has to do with glass. Trust me, it does.

Earlier this month I had the amazing privilege of attending the National Day of Glass event in Washington, D.C. This event, organized by the America Ceramic Society, was the U.S. kick-off of the International Year of Glass celebration. The two-day event covered discussions on all things glass—architecture, packaging, healthcare, space exploration. Wait, what?

Yes, more than once the Hubble, as well as the James Webb telescopes, were mentioned. Where does the glass fit in? Mirror, for one.

During cryogenic testing, the mirrors were subjected to temperatures dipping to -415 degrees Fahrenheit, permitting engineers to measure in extreme detail how the shape of each mirror changes as it cools. (NASA/MSFC/David Higginbotham/Emmett Given)

Ball Aerospace designed and built the advanced optical technology and lightweight mirror system that enables Webb to detect light from the first stars and galaxies.

Originally announced as the Next Generation Space Telescope in 1996, and renamed James Webb Space Telescope in 2002, the space science observatory represents the largest and most complex ever built. Ball Aerospace worked with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and Northrop Grumman, the prime industry partner, to innovate the 25 square-meter (~269 square feet) mirror system consisting of 18 beryllium mirror segments working together as one mirror. It is the largest mirror and the first segmented telescope ever deployed in space, operating at the extremely cold space temperature of -406⁰ F (30K) necessary for infrared imaging of distant stars and galaxies. Ball also developed the cryogenic actuators mounted on each segment to control individual mirror positioning and curvature radius within one ten-thousandth the width of a human hair. To align the mirror segments, Ball designed the 22 electronic flight control boxes to operate in a deep-freeze space environment to individually control each of the 132 actuators that keep the telescope segments properly aligned on orbit.

If you’re interested in reading more about the telescope, NASA offers a fantastic resource here.

Here’s some more interesting details about the mirror:

“The James Webb Space Telescope’s 18 special lightweight beryllium mirrors had to make 14 stops to 11 different places around the U.S. to complete their manufacturing. They came to life at beryllium mines in Utah, and then moved across the country for processing and polishing. In fact, the mirrors made stops in eight states along the way, visiting some states more than once,” before their journey for lift-off.

According to NASA, “the beryllium to make Webb’s mirror was mined in Utah and purified at Brush Wellman in Ohio. The particular type of beryllium used in the Webb mirrors is called O-30 and is a fine powder. The powder was placed into a stainless steel canister and pressed into a flat shape. Once the steel canister was removed, the resulting chunk of beryllium was cut in half to make two mirror blanks about 1.3 meters (4 feet) across. Each mirror blank was used to make one mirror segment; the full mirror is made from 18 hexagonal segments.”

The glass and mirror used to construct the Webb, of course, isn’t the same as the glass we use and see every day in our homes and offices. You might say it’s more like a distant cousin. The one who’s kinda famous that you brag about to your friends.

It’s exciting to know that this year is the year to celebrate all things glass—from the buildings we love to the space telescopes that allow us to explore and learn more about what’s possibly out there in the great unknown.

If you missed our National Day of Glass coverage, you can watch the video here.